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The trial started in Bari on Thursday of four Montenegrins accused of involvement in smuggling cigarettes in the 1990s.
Three Montenegrin businessmen, Vesko Barovic, Branko Vujosevic, and Branislav Micunovic, and the former chief of Montenegro's trade mission in Italy, Dusanka Jeknic, are standing trial in Bari, a Podgorica-based radio, Antena M, said on Wednesday.
They are accused of involvement in an international mafia-run cigarette-smuggling racket across the Adriatic Sea between 1994 and 2002.
“I am convinced these Montenegrin citizens only served the interests of Montenegro,” Enrico Tucillo, the lawyer for Dusanka Jeknic, said, urging the court to bring an acquittal.
Montenegrin officials, who have often been accused of taking part in the smuggling racket, have always denied charges of criminal activities.
The current Prime Minister, Milo Djukanovic, was himself investigated in Italy, but the investigation was dropped in 2009. “It wasn’t smuggling, but a legal transit, conducted in line with the law,” he said in 2003.
Miroslav Ivanisevic, a former finance minister, is the only Montenegrin to have stood trial in the case so far.
An Italian court acquitted him in 2010, in a move seen as putting a lid on frequent claims concerning Montenegro's involvement in cigarette smuggling rackets.
The government of Montenegro in 2012 said that it had paid 250,000 euro for his defence “because the case was connected to activities that Ivanisevic undertook as a member of the government and, hence, it was significant for Montenegro’s international position”.
The controversial Serbian businessman, Stanko Subotic, who was tried in absentia for cigarette smuggling in Serbia and jailed for six years, was also among the suspects in the Italian case.
In January, however, the prosecution asked the court in Bari to acquit him.
The investigation in Italy was launched in 2001, while the first indictments were filed in 2008.
The Hague Tribunal has been successful in bringing wartime commanders to justice but hasn’t met expectations on reconciliation, chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz told BIRN.